By STEPHEN MAZZONE
The competitor in Megan Venables told her to just go for it.
Even though deep down, inside, it wasn’t the right decision, Venables took that inner advice…and it backfired.
After a successful junior cross-country season at Highland Regional (N.J.) High where she placed second at the all-Groups state championships, Venables was looking to qualify for the Foot Locker Nationals last year. She toed the line at the regional competition, held at Sunken Meadow Park in N.Y. on Nov. 28, ready to accomplish that goal.
Foot Locker NE - Photo by Don Rich
But instead of running her own race, she followed the lead of one of the nation’s best in Aisling Cuffe.
“It wasn’t a good race,” she said. “I went out way too fast. I felt like I was sprinting. Cuffe went out really fast and I just tried to stay with her.”
Cuffe’s strategy worked for her as the then-junior from Cornwall (N.Y.) High won the race and then eventually finished fourth at the nationals a few weeks later in San Diego. As for Venables, she paid the price for the fast, early pace and struggled to a time of 19 minutes, 13.30 seconds – a clocking that would place her 16th overall and prevent her from earning a trip to the West Coast.
“I think I was ready,” Venables said. “I just got nervous and panicked.”
For most runners, the memory never lingers. It never forgets the good races and it certainly never forgets the ones it would rather forget.
And most times, those tough races can produce positive energy.
The 17-year-old Venables has turned that performance at last year’s Foot Locker Northeast Regionals into motivation. She rebounded during the indoor and outdoor track seasons, highlighted by a third-place finish (PB, 17:22.84) in the 5K at the Nike Indoor Nationals and a pair of wins for 3,200 meters at her respective state meets – the NJSIAA Meet of Champions.
“I think after that race it made me work that much harder,” Venables said. “I was definitely more focused and determined.”
With her final season on the cross-country trails in its early stages, the signs are looking favorable for Venables. That became evident in her season-opener on Sept. 18 when the talented runner not only won the individual title at the Briarwood Invitational in Philadelphia, but smashed the existing mark for the five-kilometer layout at Belmont Plateau by 47 seconds, finishing far ahead of the field with a head-turning 17:39 clocking.
“Considering it was my first race of the season, I didn’t know what to expect,” Venables said. “I was definitely surprised. It’s definitely exciting.
“I had no idea I would run that fast. My coaches were telling me about 18:40s would be good. I didn’t really think I could run under 18 (so early). I am really happy with it.”
The key to Venables’ sensational start to her cross-country season comes from her motivation from last year. It’s also bolstered by a productive summer where the gifted harrier logged an average of 65 miles per week and also incorporated some weightlifting into her training.
“Last summer, I had one week where I was up to 70 miles,” Venables said. “This summer was different. (The increased miles) have helped a lot. With the more miles, I have become stronger.”
Twice a week, the Highland senior does a one-hour circuit-training weight-lifting workout.
“I think my legs are stronger, but my upper body wasn’t strong at all. My arms were getting tired,” Venables said. “The weights have definitely helped a lot; definitely going up hills when you need to pump your arms.”
En route to breaking the old record of 18:27 set in 2001 by Council Rock (Pa.) North’s Jessica Cickay, a Foot Locker finalist, Venables trailed eventual second-place finisher Sara Sargent of Pennsbury (Pa.) High (18:04) at the mile and pulled even with the sophomore by the second mile. She then made her move for the title and never had to look back.
Venables didn’t realize she was at record-breaking pace until she got a glance at the large digital clock at the finish about 200 meters away.
“There were clocks at each mile, but I didn’t see any of them,” she said. “I guess I was really focused. I really didn’t know what I was running until I basically crossed the finish line. I figured about 18:30. I didn’t think it would be that fast.”
After a two-week layoff from her stunning performance at Briarwood, Venables will compete at the Shores Coaches Invitational, a statewide competition at Holmdel Park on Oct. 2. Her focus for the remainder of the cross-country season remains unchanged, regardless of her surprising start.
She currently ranks No. 8 on the MileSplit national list. Cuffe holds the top spot with a time of 17:17. “The goals are definitely the same. (Briarwood) was just my first race,” Venables said. “I just want to try and win the state championship and try to get to the (Foot Locker) Nationals. My two goals have not changed.”